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What makes a villain? Jude reflects on National Superhero Day

It’s National Superhero Day, and our campaigner Jude shares thoughts on her favourite Netflix series, The Umbrella Academy.

What is The Umbrella Academy?

Based on the comic books from My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, this Netflix series begins when 43 superhuman infants are suddenly born. Their mothers have shown no signs of being pregnant beforehand. Seven of these children are adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves, who raises them to be superheroes at the Umbrella Academy.

The Umbrella Academy means a lot to me

I’m a superhero fan and I love Marvel. When I was younger, I was also a big My Chemical Romance fan. So, a lot of people recommended The Umbrella Academy to me, and yes, I instantly loved it.

I started watching The Umbrella Academy in lockdown. I was shielding so got through both series quite quickly. It was perfect escapism. It was also witty, the characters were complex and it had some fantastic comical moments. I got drawn into the whole world.

I’d discovered these seven misfits trying to find themselves – something that anyone with a visible difference can relate to.

In series two we saw The Umbrella Academy all get dropped into different years across the 1960s. It was lovely – following them on their journey of self-discovery, particularly after seeing their dysfunctional family upbringing in series one. And there was so much positivity being brought about as each character tried to figure out where they fit in the world.

At the end of series two, they are transported back to 2019. Except, this time, they land in an alternate timeline – Hargreeves has adopted seven other children that were born on that day with superpowers, and they are creating The Sparrow Academy. That’s where season two ended.

My heart dropped when I saw an Instagram post promoting series three.

I’ve been really excited about the launch of the third series – eagerly anticipating what new characters will feature in The Sparrow Academy and how their relationship will develop with The Umbrella Academy characters. To promote the return of the series in June, Netflix are starting to drip-feed new characters to us on social media. At the moment, the characters are introduced like Top Trumps cards – an image, some strengths and weaknesses, but little else – to build anticipation.

Last week, a new character with a visible difference was announced. Alphonso Hargreeves is seen to have scars and marks that cover his face and body. As the comics run parallel to the series, we’re not sure whether this character, from The Sparrow Academy are good or bad yet. But in the comic, Alphonso has voodoo-based abilities. When he inflicts harm upon himself, he harms his enemies too.

What we don’t know yet is if he’s a villain or a hero. But harmful comments are stacking up, and people have made their own assumptions as to his character and personality based on what he looks like. In their eyes, he’s already “the bad guy” because he looks different.

Comments read “I’m scared”, “why does he look like he’s melting” and “what happened to him”.

Netflix have made light of his visible difference on several occasions across social media – with comments like “you should see the other guy” and “Alphonso is a bully”. But where does this leave people – normal people, who have conditions and differences that make them look like Alphonso? Who stumble across these posts and read the comments that people are leaving about his appearance.

There hasn’t been anyone with a visible difference in the show yet. It has a fantastic script and they’ve managed to develop great good and evil characters without introducing any visible differences. It’s disappointing to see them introducing these tropes at this stage.

Bond and Batman – it’s a love/hate relationship.

I’m a fan of superhero movies, and I’m a big fan of James Bond. But I sometimes feel conflicted, because visible difference is consistently used as a way to show the audience how “evil” each villain is.

Today, we’re seeing villains like The Penguin and Joker with visible differences to make them look more sinister, and people are even starting to come up with backstories to justify their scarring, and through their scarring, their villainy. Being “born different” to justify why villains grow up to be psychopaths.

But there is a way we can avoid this.

If you look at Heath Ledger’s joker, his face paint is a more prominent characteristic than his scars, and the rest is down to great acting. He’s still one of the best superhero villain’s I’ve seen, and he doesn’t need a visible difference to prove this – face paint alone did the trick.

It’s in the writing and acting for me. Take Christopher Waltz as Blofeld in James Bond. To me, he’s just as terrifying at the start of the film as he is when he has an accident which creates his scarring. That’s because, as an actor, he understood the character and plays the part well.

This is why it’s damaging to people with visible differences.

Competition is tough for the cinema and streaming channels right now. There’s so much demand and competition for our time and money, and films/series are being churned out. It seems there’s a new Marvel film or series each week!

It means that each streaming channel is creating a shock factor to grab our attention – falling into old tropes to capture our attention on social media and trailers.

But it’s harmful to people who live with visible differences. It creates problematic subliminal messaging.

For younger kids especially, growing up with a host of disfigured and scarred villains reinforces the norm that it’s ok to feel disturbed or freaked out, stare or feel unsettled around people with visible difference, because the only representation you’ve seen is from films with negative representations. Of course, people will think, “oh that person’s disturbed, you must have gone through some trauma in your life and because of this, you’re probably bad.”

Moving forwards

Let’s see more from the acting and performing to determine who is good and who is bad in superhero films and series. Let’s step away from lazy and outdated stereotypes. Let’s have a character – the hero, the strong sidekick or intelligent love interest, who also happens to have a visible difference.

I’m still holding out hope for my favourite Netflix series. Perhaps Alphonso Hargreeves won’t be a villain. Perhaps he’ll fight alongside The Umbrella Academy and prove the haters and commentators on each social media post about him wrong. Perhaps not, but by spreading awareness and challenging these tropes, I hope we see our favourite villains scar-free and as evil as ever, and more heroes with visible difference.

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